Applying User-Centered Design for Social Good.

How Huge designed a product for survivors of sex trafficking by bringing together experts from the community.

January 31, 2017

Human trafficking is one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world. The most profitable type is sex trafficking: 4.5 million people, most of whom are women, are enslaved and used to earn $99 billion in profits every year. This massive, largely unseen illicit industry thrives in Atlanta, where a booming tourism industry and the world’s busiest airport make it easy for traffickers to transport victims and find clients.

The Atlanta office of Huge has a strong commitment to the community and was inspired to apply its strategy, design, and technology skills and resources to try and disrupt the sex trafficking industry. Rather than volunteer time or resources, the leadership team in Atlanta decided to spearhead an initiative that identifies the core and fundamental issues, leading the way with a potential solution — something that could be a catalyst for change, align experts from the cause, and have a lasting effect.

To launch the development process, Huge hosted a weeklong design sprint that brought together local experts on the issue of sex trafficking with a team of Huge designers, developers, and strategists to identify and design solutions. “There's no better use for our talents than taking on something that is tragic to people and society,” says Michael Koziol, president, international at Huge. “It's an important investment that we're making as a company and as individuals.” 

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The program leveraged the Huge IMPACT process, which seeks to concentrate discovery, exploration, ideation, design, and prototyping into five to 10 working days. The result of the sprint is meant to be a starting point for development — which can evolve into a scalable solution and working product — as well as open lines of communication between various stakeholders (i.e., nonprofit organizations, survivors of sex trafficking, and agencies). 

“IMPACT poses a unique opportunity for us to get a lot of different voices in a room to express the challenges that they're dealing with every day,” says Derek Fridman, executive creative director at Huge. “That gives us a foundation to build applications or experiences that can grow over time and start to solve some of the issues that they are so passionate about.” 

"A lot of times survivors are not at the table when it comes to implementing and creating things."

We invited subject matter experts (SMEs), including representatives from nonprofits focused on sex trafficking, members of law enforcement, and survivors, to collaborate with the Huge team. The experts were from the FBI, The Carter Center, Care USA, Wellspring Living, Sun Gate Foundation, youthSpark, Unsilenced ATL, Montgomery County Police Department, and TechBridge. They helped the team figure out which specific problem they should focus on, balancing the needs of the community with the limitations of technology and time. 

Defining the challenge. 

Sex trafficking is a complex and multifaceted issue. To design an informed and effective solution, the team needed to gain a deep and holistic understanding of the issue from various perspectives. An FBI specialist and Keisha Head, a sex-trafficking survivor turned survivor advocate, kicked off the ideation. Their presentations illuminated the scope of the issue, delving into the populations that are most at risk; the behavioral dynamics between the victims and perpetrators; the role technology plays in trapping and exploiting victims; and the challenges survivors face at every stage in their lives. “It is very important for me to have a voice, to let the world know this happened to me and people can overcome human trafficking,” says Head. “A lot of times survivors are not at the table when it comes to implementing and creating things. I think that Huge went above and beyond for survivor leadership by incorporating a survivor voice. That is very empowering.” 


Designing a solution. 

The team quickly learned that the subject of sex trafficking is so broad, with so many varying dimensions, that taking on the entire issue would be like trying to boil the ocean. In classic Huge style, they focused on the key user-centric drivers that could make the greatest impact in the lives of the victims and potentially break a tragic cycle. The insights from experts and the IMPACT ideation process enabled the team to hone in on a clear mission: Help survivors of sex trafficking transition back into society. According to the panel of SMEs, it’s a significant challenge for survivors and there are a dearth of services available. As part of the research, the team dug deep, combing through databases like the National Safe Place registry, Human Trafficking Resource, Polaris Project, and National Survivor Network databases to better understand the needs of survivors. They also used materials provided by the partner organizations to map the journey of a survivor on the path to recovery. Detailing major recovery stage milestones, such as finding safe housing, getting a job, learning to manage money, and developing self-esteem and coping skills, helped the team better understand all of the needs of a survivor in recovery. 

One key theme and unique challenge that came up throughout the explorations was creating a solution building a product that couldn’t be infiltrated by sex traffickers. “There's this delicate line between how do you talk to the right people and exclude the wrong people,” says Monet Spells, interaction designer at Huge. “Being able to navigate that design space is a very interesting challenge.” 

Office meeting

At the midpoint of the sprint, following two very long and intense days (and late nights) of research, analysis, deliberation, and ideation, the team presented three product ideas to the partner organizations. The goal was to consider three different opportunities and outcomes that can improve the survivor experience and hopefully break the cycles of sex trafficking. Using five key metrics to gauge the success of the solution — reach, speed, sustainability, data collection, and appeal — the design team and organizations selected one of the three solutions for further diligence and prototyping and testing. 

The product idea that was deemed the most impactful was a chatbot that connects survivors with 24/7 support in a safe and secure digital environment. (Insight from the experts revealed that survivors preferred the anonymity and security of receiving information and assistance from a bot.) The service would make it easy for survivors to find shelter and counseling services. They can also discover relevant tools to learn new skills, such as job interviewing, managing finances, and dealing with stress. To motivate survivors to develop these and other skills, it would have an incentive model that rewards goal completion, such as awarding a ride to their first job interview. The product would also make it possible for survivors to connect with survivor mentors who have reintegrated into society to enable human connection. 

“For someone who's gone through the terrible experience of sex trafficking, those social skills can have a tremendous impact on your future,” says Gail Robinson of Wellspring Living, which assists survivors of sex trafficking, who was one of the external experts that offered guidance throughout the week. 

Finalizing the product. 

Once the solution was agreed on by the expert panel and the Huge design team, it was an all-out effort to design, develop, and present the prototype. The team named the product Beam, in honor of its ability to illuminate resources for those in need. The to-do list was split: half the team wrote a script to showcase how an empathetic and intelligent chatbot can provide survivors with necessary mentors and resources, and the other half designed and coded the prototype. The product designs were built as a proof of concept to show how a 24/7 resource could support the early and late stages of recovery. It also demonstrated that the platform could be a tool for relevant organizations or brands to help support survivors. 


On the day of the final presentation, the SMEs reconvened with the Huge team for a recap of the activities and the presentation of BEAM. With everyone in the room, the team and the SMEs stressed-tested the idea to determine whether it would have the potential for high impact. Partner participants confirmed that the concept as expressed in the prototype met the criteria and scored high with the key goals of ensuring discretion and offering companionship. And they were confident it could be scaled across other populations, such as survivors of domestic abuse. Most were eager to user-test it within their organizations and the populations they serve directly.

So...where do we go from here? 

“The opportunity is too big and the purpose too important for this to end with a prototype and presentation,” adds Koziol. “We are working with various organizations and foundations, as well as the participating stakeholders, to complete and establish BEAM as a platform for change and hopefully break the cycle of sex trafficking in our community and around the world.” As a follow-up to this prototype development workshop, Huge is sharing the process and output with governmental organizations, NGOs, public policy schools, and agencies serving affected populations to find the best options for making BEAM a reality. 

Beyond sex trafficking, Huge is committed to continuing to use its experience and resources for positive change. “Getting everyone in the room and getting the conversation started is the most important part,” says Dana Tzegaegbe, an Innovation Fellow at Care USA who participated in the IMPACT sprint. “The product is important ...You've just got to make sure to keep the conversation going.”